Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States, especially among elderly people. Both chronic and acute constipation can be a significant source of discomfort.
Constipation is diagnosed whenever bowel movements are difficult, hard, or painful. Contrary to popular wisdom, frequency of bowel movements is not a criterion for diagnosing constipation because of the wide range of variability among individuals. Most people have at least three bowel movements weekly, but some people have fewer and would not be diagnosed with constipation. Bowel movements should be fairly regular and pass with no straining or pain. Stool should be formed and pliable, as opposed to pebble-like and hard. It is also important to note that dramatic shifts in the frequency or manner of bowel movements (such as frequent diarrhea or the sudden onset of very painful, very difficult-to-pass bowel movements) should prompt an immediate visit to a physician to look for underlying causes.
Most individuals with constant constipation develop a variety of symptoms, ranging from abdominal pain, rectal discomfort, abdominal fullness and bloating, nausea, and loss of appetite to a general feeling of malaise. These individuals feel as if they never completely evacuate their bowels. Severe chronic constipation may be accompanied by fecal impaction (Arce 2002; Rao 2003).
Most people with chronic constipation are advised to exercise and increase their intake of fiber and liquids. While these measures are effective for some people, they do not work for everybody. Many people also use fiber supplements. However, fiber supplements aren't always effective. The Life Extension Foundation has identified superior forms of fiber that may help relieve constipation when traditional fiber supplements are not adequate. If the above measures do not relieve constipation, nutritional laxatives should be considered. There are many kinds of laxatives, but using peristaltic-stimulating laxatives, which also provide health benefits, is the safest choice.
Because constipation can be caused by serious medical conditions, such as cancer, a sudden change in bowel habits among middle-aged or elderly people warrants a thorough evaluation by a physician.